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What Does “Cut the Mustard” Mean? How to Use It in Writing

What Does “Cut the Mustard” Mean? How to Use It in Writing

The English language can be eccentric at times, especially with some of its idioms or phrases. When words, such as “mustard”, get used in an adage, it can pique most language lovers’ interest. Even some native speakers of the language may not be entirely on top of the saying.

The phrase “cut the mustard” means “not up to the mark” or “not to expected standards”. When someone says “he/she didn’t cut the mustard”, they mean the person couldn’t accomplish what they were set out to or expected to achieve. Not to mention, the phrase can be used in texts literally as well.

“Cut the mustard” isn’t the only way to say “up to the mark”. But if you like the sound of it and would like to learn a bit more before wanting to incorporate the expression into your texts correctly, read on.

literal representation of cutting the mustard

“Cut the Mustard” – Meaning

The idiom “cut the mustard” means “to hit or exceed expectations”. It denotes “doing one’s job” or “meeting a particular standard”. Phrases or words synonymous with or similar to “cut the mustard” include:

  • Pass muster
  • Hack it
  • Up to snuff
  • Make the grade
  • Make the cut

Some phrases with the term “mustard” may seem quite similar to “cut the mustard” in meaning, but their connotations are usually not the same.

For example, “hold the mustard” means “no”, “certainly not”, or “by no means”, even though it seems like the phrase is synonymous with “cut the mustard”. Another idiomatic expression, “keen as mustard”, means “very enthusiastic”, which carries a different meaning as well.

Besides being used in phrases to mean different things, the term “mustard” by itself can be used as slang to signify multiple things. In other words, it could mean “money”, “good”, “enthusiastic”, etc.

Origin of the Phrase “Cut the Mustard”

Unlike most English idioms, “cut the mustard” is not British. It’s an American slang, first documented to be used in a newspaper in Galveston, Texas in 1891-92.

Another theory suggests the phrase was used in an American news publication a few years earlier in 1889, in The Ottawa Herald, the Kansas newspaper.

The phrase was later picked up and used by O. Henry, the American writer, in “The Heart of the West”, a compendium of short stories:

“I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard.”

The word “mustard”, however, is a much older word than the expression. (More on that below)

Why “Mustard”?

It’s not clear why and how “mustard” became a part of the idiom. Quite a few theories are being circulated, but none have proper evidence validating them. It’s still worth the while to discuss them here.

Some put forward theories based on the phrase’s literal meaning, as in “harvesting or cutting down mustard plants”. They allude to the challenge of cutting the mustard in its varied forms. Mustard seeds can be difficult to cut using a knife as they’re small and shiny. Also, mustard plants are stringy and tough and grow too densely to be easily cut.

A few others link the saying to another expression, “pass muster”, which means pretty much the same thing as “cut the mustard”.

On a related note, “pass mustard” and “cut the muster” are not valid terms, as plausible as they may seem. Some are of the wrong impression that “cut the mustard” is a mistaken or altered version of “cut the muster”.

“Cut the muster” cannot be correct if you know what “muster” means.

“Muster” denotes “assembling” or “bringing together”. The term is invariably used to marshal or mobilize soldiers, sailors, prisoners, etc., for exercise or inspection. “Cut the muster”, therefore, would denote “breach of discipline”. Not to mention, it has nothing to do with “success” or “excellence” that “cut the mustard” implies.

The inclination to link “cut the mustard” with “cut the muster” could be due to “pass muster”, which is a proper phrase and also means the same as “cut the mustard”.

What is “Mustard”?

To further understand why “mustard” gets used in the phrase and denotes what it does, it’s essential to learn a bit about “mustard” from the culinary and non-gastronomic perspectives.

“Mustard” is a condiment that adds zest and spice to cheeses, meats, sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs, etc.

Right from the 1600s, “mustard” has been synonymous with the adjectives “strong”, “hot”, etc. And as a figure of speech or rhetoric, it denotes something that’s “powerful”, “passionate”, “enthusiastic”, etc. These are admirable or desirable qualities to have. Over a period, the condiment could have assumed connotations of “genuine”, “excellent”, “superior”, etc.

During the early 20th century, it’s believed the term was used to refer to someone as “great”, as in, “She’s mustard”. This alternate meaning of the word could have birthed “cut the mustard” and the idea behind it.

mustard being applied to meat

Using the Phrase “Cut the Mustard” in Texts

Compared to some tricky idioms, the phrase “cut the mustard” is a lot easier to employ in sentences. Here are a couple of example sentences:

  • To cut the mustard, your basketball skills should be beyond top-notch.
  • The phone with its physical keypad just doesn’t cut the mustard in the world of all-screen phones.

Though the phrase is usually used in texts for its symbolic meaning, it could also be employed for its literal sense. For example:

  • I asked her to cut the mustard.
  • She will cut the mustard seeds after she’s done watching the show.

Some sentences with the phrase could mean both (literal and figurative) at the same time. For example:

  • She was having a tough time cutting the mustard.

The sentence above could mean the person was finding it difficult to get some work done, or she was finding it tough to cut some mustard seeds.

As mentioned earlier, the expression has quite a few synonyms. However, the one that’s almost identical to it in meaning is “pass muster”. Therefore, if you choose, you may use “pass muster” instead of “cut the mustard” in your texts. The sentence’s meaning won’t change.

Another equally interchangeable phrase is “up to snuff”.

Negative Connotation

Though the phrase denotes “accomplishment” or “having lived up to expectations”, it’s usually employed in texts in a negative tone or to complain that something or someone didn’t do what they were supposed to, as in “can’t cut the mustard”, “doesn’t cut the mustard”, etc. For example:

  • Her new song didn’t cut the mustard.

The same sentence can be phrased positively as:

  • Her new song cut the mustard.

But that doesn’t sound that great, and it’s, therefore, usually written as “Her new song was good/did well.”

Here are a few more sentences that employ the phrase in a negative construct:

  • The team’s forward did not cut the mustard during the finals.
  • Give me that hammer. This one’s too small and does not cut the mustard.
  • He applied for a job in the company but didn’t cut the mustard.

If you don’t fancy the “negative” connotation attached to the phrase or the term just doesn’t fit in your texts, use the alternate expressions (mentioned earlier) instead.

But, incidentally, the replacement texts are also primarily used in the negative sense. For example, a business plan that’s flawed could get the “doesn’t pass muster” description.

Example Sentences with the Saying “Cut the Mustard”

The following is a list of sentences incorporating the phrase “cut the mustard”, mostly figuratively:

  • He hopes to lead the team in the playoffs, but he doesn’t cut the mustard.
  • Grab me a sharper tool. This knife does not cut the mustard.
  • The coach professionally trained her. But on the day of the performance, she couldn’t cut the mustard.
  • No one thought she would cut the mustard. But once she started to perform, people were slowly changing their opinions about her.
  • I made this logo for the new site. What do you think? Does it cut the mustard?
  • He took the mantle over from his had and tried running the restaurant business. But he could not cut the mustard, and the establishment had to be closed within a year after his dad’s exit.
  • I would like some new workers on board. The ones you sent me earlier keep mixing up the consignments and just aren’t cutting the mustard.
  • This toaster does not cut the mustard like it used to.
  • The guy looks a bit too old for stocking shelves day in and day out. I don’t think he’ll cut the mustard.
  • She cut the mustard while we were still on the road, and I had to put up with the smell throughout the journey.

standards spelled on folder


“Cut the mustard”, as mentioned earlier, is not a very well-known phrase and can confuse quite a few. But people who are familiar with the expression will have no trouble comprehending the term when used in a sentence and when using it in their own texts.

And to bring some attention to it, they may put the phrase in quotations. In the past (and maybe even now), news publications placed the idiom in quotes so that the focus on the words got communicated to the readers.

You need not do so while using the phrase in your texts unless you want to stress the idiom’s use as well.